Response from a Disgruntled Reader: A Review of Ander Monson’s Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries
By Rachel A. Santose
In Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries, Ander Monson innovatively interacts with users of libraries and books. Each chapter consists of a stream-of-consciousness essay, or “letter,” with most essays numbering two pages or less. Chapters are organized alphabetically, but Monson explains that the reader may peruse his book “whichever way you like” (87). His chapters are packed with information and insight provoking thought about life experiences, human values, ethics, and the nature of reading.
There are a number of rewarding aspects within <em>Letter to a Future Lover</em>. Monson crafts a rich dialogue between reader and author, reader and reader, reader and librarian, and even book lover and book defacer. In doing so, Monson gives credence to the ways in which books connect us to one another across space and generations. He also asks his readers to ponder the ways in which we interact with a book as we read it. He explains that “Reading is participation” (87), and that one’s own thoughts and distractions mingle with the written word.
One of Monson’s greatest contributions is his discussion of the role books play, especially their marginalia, as historical artifacts. From an archival and curatorial perspective, marginalia provides us with a connection to others who have touched the same surface. Monson exclaims, “Your hands were on this edition, in a room somewhere” (73). A book that once belonged to George Washington, where his signature is on the front matter, has great historical significance. A scholar may use the book to infer how Washington’s mind was shaped by the book’s content, or he/she may examine the margin notes Washington left behind. Monson is correct in arguing that “history-free eBooks torrented on the Internet” (73) may never have the same impact. This inspires the question: Can a virtual provenance exist? Can a PDF, read by President Obama on his iPad, be first and foremost located by the scholar, and then analyzed? Monson does not think so, which is something to be lamented about modern society. The archivist may agree in the assessment and appraisal of born-digital, web-based documents.
Monson additionally maintains that we must preserve errata, i.e., the items that appear meaningless but have great cultural or historical significance. Preserving a famous author’s manuscript edits and alterations, when compared to the published version, can provide insight into the author’s state of mind. This is important from a rare books and archives perspective. On a larger level, we must continue to document change rather than erase or correct errors. In doing so, we hold ourselves and our society accountable.
It must be noted, however, that Monson’s stream-of-consciousness style often leads to aggravating, rambling, and inaccessible prose. Ironically, the typical reader may lose interest as this is not the easiest or most enjoyable read. In addition, the librarian may find Monson’s self-aggrandizement and judgement of library work tiring. Monson is a scholar and author writing about libraries and librarians; something he knows little about. For instance, Monson believes that "A library is a synonym for slow, a silent coil into the past's dust" (43). This statement is inaccurate. While libraries work in preservation, they are also, at the fundamental level, about service to their users. Instead, libraries must be progressive, forward-thinking entities, and librarians must help populations connect to the information of today.
Monson does not understand the profession of librarianship, and he is rather condescending to librarians. At one point, Monson tells his reader about his discovery of two library books in his personal collection, which he returned to the library with a note. He then exclaims “I thought that librarians must live for notes like this,” that these notes are like “lights from distant stars” (105). Not quite. A librarian probably never laid hands on the note. Maybe a student worker saw it, but a librarian’s job consists of far more than checking in and out books, shushing people, and reading notes. His judgment is one that exists universally in academic institutions, and his continuation of the generalization is detrimental to libraries and the profession of academic librarianship in general.
Monson also provides a very limited view of libraries and library users. Although he includes surprising spaces and populations – a seed library, a political prisoner library, a reader of braille – Monson fails to sample works from libraries that accommodate underserved populations. He also represents a very specific type of active, scholarly reader. To make an earnest statement about the various ways people interact with the written word, Monson should have represented casual or lay readers. How do children or young adults interact with their books? Monson is too busy judging “the young and their [poor] reading habits” (122), or the undergraduate student with the ringing cellphone two study carrels over.
On the most fundamental level, <em>Letter to a Future Lover</em> is not what it claims to be – a collection of marginalia, errata, ephemera, etc. Only a few examples of library errata exist in the book with Monson mostly responding to quotes or passages from books he has stumbled across during his travels and studies. Instead, he critically judges people and the books he finds in their collection including his wife’s reading diary, his co-workers personal collection, or his father’s bookshelves. Ultimately, Monson makes a commendable effort to spark a dialogue between readers of books and their interactions with the written word. He portrays an interesting history of the book and the nature of reading. Monson is stalled at times, however, by his pretentious and inaccessible prose.
Rachel Santose is an Instruction and Assessment Librarian and College Archivist at SUNY Canton College of Technology in Canton, New York. She received her M.A. in History and M.L.S. from Indiana University, Bloomington, and her B.A. in History and Civil War Era Studies from Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.